Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Daniel Barber

Cast: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Iain Glen, Ben Drew

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and sexual content)

Running Time: 1:43

Release Date: 4/30/10

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 29, 2010

As an actor, Michael Caine has that rare quality of exuding definitive, rational thought in his performances. His mind is working, his characters constantly evaluating their current state and next move. This is true as the titular character of Harry Brown, and it's a performance that lends credence to a movie that desperately needs it.

After a harrowing prologue that acts as a firsthand document of a neighborhood gang's total dismissal of the value of life for the thrill of the kill, Harry Brown begins with long takes of Caine as Brown going through the motions. He wakes up, makes his breakfast, goes for a walk, visits his comatose wife in the hospital, stops at a bar, plays chess with an old friend, comes home, sleeps, and wakes up to do the whole thing over again.

The isolation, the loneliness, the feeling of powerlessness are crystalline in Caine's performance—the routine motions, quiet demeanor, and blank stares. Here is a man at the end of his life, and he knows it and is reminded of it each and every waking day.

Director Daniel Barber takes time with these moments, allowing Caine to go through the motions. The tension here is light. Harry circumvents a pedestrian tunnel that would shorten his walk to the hospital because the local gang hangs out there. His best and only friend Leonard (David Bradley) starts asking about Harry's past in the Marines, a time Harry chose to let go after marrying, and states that he's had enough of the hoodlums in the neighborhood, who harass him without end.

It's a quiet pressure that builds, until a phone call late at night sends Harry rushing to the hospital where, in a simple but painful shot, he is met by an empty hospital bed. Leonard arms himself with a bayonet, and the next day, two detectives, Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles), arrive at Harry's door with more bad news. Leonard is dead, killed in that same pedestrian walkway Harry has avoided.

Screenwriter Gary Young makes the inexorable turn from slice-of-life despair to revenge thriller on a dime. The last moment of Harry as a lonesome old man comes as he removes an old box from under his bed, a gift from his daughter, who died when she was young, lay on top of the remnants of his old life as a Marine. The visual makes its point, and Harry is now a killing machine.

These sequences work as well as they possibly can. Harry turns a mugger's knife on the owner. He infiltrates an urban marijuana farm looking for a gun where a young woman lies on the couch, drugged, while a homemade rape video plays in the background. Barber captures the grimy, desolated atmosphere of a London tenement, while Young develops Harry's targets amoral scum at every turn.

Going down this road, Young has written into a dead end. After spending as much time observing Harry's day-to-day life as the script does, the only route left is to transform him into society's avenging angel. Admirably, Caine passes on the anger and bitterness typical with that persona, and in its stead, he makes the irrational role of self-appointed righter of wrongs one of reasonable intent. In the pot farm scene, Caine's mental process is clear, moving from the woman in trouble to the men who are the partially the cause to the best course of action to save her and kill them.

The actual scenes of seeking revenge fall squarely into custom. He interrogates one thug with pain-inducing tactics, participates in a standoff in the walkway, and generally shoots first and asks questions later.

The cops are incompetent, which is part of Harry's motivation. Young's attention to their failed tactics adds nothing to the sense of a hopeless situation and feels like manipulation of events to achieve the movie's theme of individual justice. The higher-ups ignore Frampton's suspicion of Harry as a suspect in the string of murders, instead starting a raid in the apartment complex, which leads to a massive riot, where the main characters are suspiciously able to maneuver freely. Frampton in particular is a derivative character. Her partner hints that she may have a reason for choosing gang enforcement, and her emotional reaction to telling Harry about Leonard's death confirms that. Young reveals nothing, leaving her character an inconsistent mystery.

Ignoring the obvious social implications and the movie's condoning of Harry's actions, Harry Brown is a mechanical revenge thriller.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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